By Jim Ferri
Bruges, Belgium, is one of the best cities in Europe to visit in the off-season.
Like most other European cities, in the off-season there’s a dearth of tourists in Bruges, the cultural season is in full swing, and prices tend to drop with the temperature. So what makes Bruges special?
What sets Bruges apart in the off-season is that it’s so beautiful and so small – oddly enough, the two things that also contribute to it being so crowded in the summer.
Crowded to Cozy
But when there’s a bit of a nip in the air, Bruges turns from crowded to cozy, and all that medieval architecture just accentuates its intimacy and romantic nature.
With the crowds gone everything feels more authentic and I feel more like a local, sometimes even one from another century as I take in that glorious architecture all around me.
There’s much to be said for snuggling under a blanket in a horse-drawn carriage as you clip-clop along one of Bruges’s cobbled medieval lanes. And also for escaping the winter wind in a crowded, centuries old bar or café to linger over a glass of beer, wine or genever, the Flemish warm gin.
When I’m tucked away in an old candle-lit restaurant, even food tastes better on a cold, rainy evening. And there’s no lack of wonderful restaurants in Bruges.
Forget the Diet
Whatever time of year you visit Bruges, forget the diet. Not only is this a city of fabulous food (that’s also awash with excellent wines and plenty of wonderful Belgian beer), it’s also the chocolate capital of the world.
Wherever you go in the old historic center, you’ll likely never be more than a few steps away from a chocolate shop (see In Search of the Best Chocolate in Bruges, Belgium) as well as plenty of places to get a hot chocolate to ward off the chill.
There are reputed to be hundreds of chocolate shops scattered all over the city, which offer flavors ranging from exquisite to quirky. My favorites include Dumon Artisanale Chocolatier (Eiermarkt 6) and Dominique Persoone (Simon Stevinplein 19) but you’ll likely find your favorites.
If you want to learn more about chocolate visit the privately owned Chocolate Museum (Choco-Story, Wijnzakstraat 2) where you’ll find the answers to such questions as to whether it causes high cholesterol, makes you fat or is an aphrodisiac.
Unspoiled Medieval Beauty
Right up there with chocolate is the city’s reputation for unspoiled beauty.
During the 14th–16th centuries, Bruges was one of northern Europe’s most sophisticated cities. It was during this time that merchants built beautiful mansions, churches, and extravagant civic buildings, most still intact since the city escaped damage in both world wars.
It’s not an exaggeration to say the city has an overabundance of medieval architecture since you find stepped gables and craggy spires jutting up just about everywhere you look. You see it everywhere throughout the old, historic city center, which is eminently walkable and virtually carless.
Swan-dotted canals cross the center here and there, emphasizing the romantic nature of it all, as does its warrens of medieval lanes, like the canals, lined with mansions Wander down them and you’ll stumble across some of the most picturesque places and houses you’ll see anywhere.
Start at the Market
The city’s medieval 13th-century market spreads out below the Belfort, a 13th-century tower where Bruges medieval charter of rights was held. It’s the perfect place to start a tour of the city.
It’s a large square, almost 2.5 acres in size, surrounding a statue that celebrates Jan Breydel and Pieter de Coninck, 14th-century local heroes who resisted French oppression. Around it loom step-gabled medieval buildings and old guild houses, now the homes of pricey pubs and restaurants.
The 272-foot tall Belfort, part of a 13th-century complex of halls that served as a warehouse and a market hall in the Middle Ages, contains a carillon with 47 bells and also the old city Treasury. If you want to work off some chocolates you can climb the 366 steps to its top for a panoramic view of the city. There’s also an art gallery at the base of the building.
Afterward, stop at a café to people-watch, hire a horse-drawn carriage to take you about or wander five minutes over to the Dijver canal near the Groeningemuseum to poke about the sidewalk antique market.
Only about a 15-minute walk from Market Square is the Begijnhof, officially known as Prinselijk Begijnhof ten Wijngaarde, a ring of small whitewashed houses in a park-like setting. This serene place, beautiful any time of year, was once the home of Beguines, girls, and widows from a variety of social backgrounds who devoted themselves to charitable work beginning in the year 1245 after it was founded by the Countess of Flanders.
Today the Begijnhof is home to the sisters of the Order of Saint Benedict (who still wear the Beguine habit), and visitors are requested to respect their vow of silence. If you take a horse-and-carriage ride around Bruges, your driver will likely make a 10-minute stop here, long enough for you to cross the small entrance bridge for a quick look around.
Exit the Begijnhof at the small bridge over the Minnewater Canal and you’ll find a group of cafés on Wijngaardplein, all perfect to get a warm tea or coffee or something stronger.
Groeningemuseum (Groeninge Museum)
While Bruges itself is a work of art, don’t miss visiting some of the city’s renowned art museums. Top on my list is the Groeningemuseum, Bruges’ famous 11-room art gallery.
Even though it’s only a fraction the size of some art museums in Brussels and Antwerp, it’s a fantastic and great gallery that houses Belgium’s finest collection of works by the Flemish Primitives, including Jan van Eyck, Hans Memling, Rogier van der Weyden, Hugo van der Goes, and Gerard David.
The Groeninge also contains top 18th– and 19th-century neoclassical pieces as well as masterpieces from Flemish Expressionism and post-war modern art.
Canal tours run throughout the year, not just during the warmer months. Although they may seem touristy, which they are, they are an excellent way to see the city from a different perspective in any season.
Be aware, however, that just as you can get very warm on a hot summer day on a canal tour, you can also get quite chilly on a cold winter one.
Still, they’re fun – just dress appropriately.